[Updated: June 29, 2021]
When it comes to finding the best burger in Kansas City, people have strong opinions. There are a few regulars that are almost always mentioned in any discussion of KC’s best burgers, names you probably know well: Town Topic, Westport Flea Market, Kitty’s Cafe.
One thing they all have in common? There’s nothing new about them. These great burgers have all been around for a long, long time.
We are a cowtown, after all. So I went to try them—all of them.
I wasn’t just looking for the best burger in the city. I wanted my burger with a side of nostalgia. I wanted only the burgers that had stood the test of time and that folks still talked about, decades on.
For this assignment, I would only seek out burgers from establishments that had been continually open for 50 years or more. Town Topic and Winstead’s were in while The Savoy and The Golden Ox were out because they’d closed and reopened with new recipes. Any time I encountered several options, I ordered a cheeseburger or the house specialty, whichever was more popular. Here are the five best burgers in Kansas City that have some history to them—plus ten others that are pretty damn good.
Hayes Hamburgers & Chili (1955)
Order: Single Chili Cheeseburger, $2.35
The folks at Hayes Hamburgers & Chili know how to keep a secret. The recipe for their chili has been in owner Jim Hayes’ family since 1906, and it’s the same formula his 24-hour diner has been using since it opened in 1955. Hayes, who still owns the diner but has retired from day-to-day operations, has left longtime employee Aaron Sprink in charge. Sprink has been at Hayes for 25 years and has managed it for the last 15. Neither he nor his loyal crew are loose-lipped: Not one of them will tell you what’s in the chili except that it has beef. They won’t tell you where the beef comes from, either — only that it is “ground fresh by one of our longtime customers and delivered seven days a week.”
The chili is important. It’s what earns Hayes a spot in our top five, since, of course, the best way to enjoy one of the spot’s burgers is with a scoop of chili in lieu of toppings and condiments. It’s a rich hickory color, expertly spiced — no beans or funny stuff. It’s the perfect complement to the petite Hayes burger patty, which you can watch being smashed onto the flat top grill on top of a thin layer of onions that caramelize and fuse to the beef, creating a decadent crust. When this chili cheeseburger arrives in front of you, having traveled less than three feet from the kitchen to your seat, it is piping hot and crowd surfing a bed of fragrant onions while a heavy pile of chili oozes onto the plate. The yellow American cheese has only just melted, and the soft bun miraculously holds everything in place as you devour this masterwork in a few short bites. 2502 N.E. Vivion Road, KCMO. 816-453-5575.
Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse (1938)
Order: The Steakburger, $11.99 with fries
If you know Jess & Jim’s Steakhouse, you likely don’t think of it as a burger destination. But you should.
Jess & Jim’s opened in 1938. Although the eponymous founders, Jess Kincaid and Jim Wright, are long gone, their legacy continues on thanks to R.C. Van Noy, Wright’s cousin who took over the business in the late ’70s. In 1990, Mike and David Van Noy, R.C.’s sons, succeeded their father. They’re still in charge today.
The steaks are the main selling point at Jess & Jim’s. They come from Sterling Silver Meats in Wichita, and they are hand-cut daily. The trimmings are used for Jess & Jim’s steakburgers: gargantuan, plate-sized beasts that require two hands and an empty stomach. The patty is oh-so-lightly seasoned. The point is for you to enjoy the intense beefiness of your order, prepared according to your preferred temperature and topped with, if you please, grilled mushrooms and grilled red onions. It’s served on a buttered, toasted brioche bun with the requisite lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side. I got a very special kind of joy out of ordering a $12 burger made with the extra bits of my next-table neighbor’s $30 sirloin. You will, too. 517 E. 135th St., KCMO. 816-941-9499
Westport Flea Market (1951)
Order: The Flea Market Burger, $9.49 with fries
Westport Flea Market is still good. In fact, it’s better than you remember.
This was one of the first burgers I had when I moved to Kansas City six years ago. I remember thinking it was decent: big and juicy, and since the condiments and toppings are do-it-yourself via a dressing bar by the order pick-up window, there was no one to judge the ludicrous amount of pickles and ketchup I indulged in. But I didn’t really get the hype behind it, and I put it out of my head.
It wasn’t until this beef marathon that I rediscovered the glory of the Westport Flea burger. It was day three, I was already 11 burgers in, and I still managed to eat an entire half of this hefty beauty. Such was its power. Maybe it’s the beef. It’s from McGonigle’s Market, one of Kansas City’s longest-standing butcher shops, founded in 1951, the same year Westport Flea got its start. The Flea Market Burger is a 10-ounce patty of ground chuck (for those with more conservative appetites, the Mini Market Burger is a 5-and-a-half-ounce patty), and it is precisely seared. The Flea Market Burger is all brute-force beef every single time.
Court House Exchange (1899)
Order: The Court House Exchange Burger, $9.99 with fries
I discovered the Court House Exchange thanks to jury duty. As I drove around Independence Square on a lunch break, my eye caught the large white block-letter print on a window: “Serving fine burgers & beer since 1899.”
Burgers were invented around the turn of the century, and if the Court House Exchange’s established date is true, it must have been one of the first joints in the country to serve them. It’s not impossible, by any means: Independence flourished as a trading post town and jumping-off point on the Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails in the first half of the 19th century.
I got the signature Court House Exchange burger. A thick, hand-pounded patty made with beef from Independence’s own L&C Meat Inc., open since 1948, is piled with two slices of bacon, cheddar, lettuce and a ripe tomato. Instead of ketchup and mustard, Court House Exchange gives its namesake burger a generous swath of sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. It was a surprise twist I didn’t know I needed — another condiment I crave with a burger now. But there’s no salt or seasoning on the patties at the Court House Exchange. “You can’t dress up the beef,” the bartender told me. She was right. The Court House Exchange burger wanted for nothing. 113 W. Lexington Ave., Independence. 816-252-0344
Kitty’s Café (1951)
Order: Double Cheeseburger, $5
Everyone talks about the pork tenderloin sandwich at Kitty’s Café, a cinder block shack at 31st Street and Troost Avenue. It’s excellent, of course, and legendary in Kansas City as far as pork tenderloin sandwiches go. But I’ve got to tell you: If you want a true-as-hell diner burger, you can’t do better than the one at Kitty’s. The thin patty is smashed on the grill just long enough to get a crispy sear around the edges before it’s topped with melty American cheese and tucked into a squishy bun. Ask for it with everything — raw onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and mustard. This is a hallowed combination anywhere you go, but at Kitty’s, the flavors are transcendental. This is the holy grail of burgers. Once you have it, you will compare all others to it. You will dream of it. You will be haunted by it. When you are old and wrinkled and telling your grandchildren about the first time you felt love, this burger is what you will be speaking of.
Kitty’s burgers aren’t big in diameter—they’re more or less palm-sized—so you don’t need to feel too guilty if you decide to order two or three patties. The recipe hasn’t changed much since OG owners Paul and Kitty Kawakami opened the joint 68 years ago, and neither have the prices. (A single cheeseburger will set you back $3.25, a double is $5, and a triple is $6.25.) Charley Soulivong purchased Kitty’s in 1998, and his biggest innovation was adding a shady outdoor seating area. This is especially handy since the cash-only Kitty’s has just a handful of barstools inside, and the wait can get long during peak hours. 810 1/2 E. 31st St., KCMO. 816-753-9711.
Other Notable Kansas City Burgers
City Diner (1937)
City Diner is about as classic as they come, and after a busy morning of shopping at the nearby City Market, you can’t go wrong with its single cheeseburger ($6.10) topped with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and raw onions. 301 Grand Blvd., KCMO. 816-471-5121
Dixon’s chili recipe hasn’t changed in 100 years. Enjoy a generous scoop of it on top of a quarter-pound cheeseburger ($6.75, add chili for 99 cents). 9105 E. U.S. Route 40, Independence. 816-861-7308
Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant (1954)
Fritz’s might be a childhood favorite for locals, but Fritz’s signature Gen-Dare ($3.69), a single cheeseburger topped with crispy hash browns, grilled onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard on a seeded bun, is for grown-ups. 250 N. 18th St., KCK. 913-281-2777
HiBoy Drive-In (1957)
At HiBoy, 90-percent lean beef patties are pounded as thin as a strip of bacon, and they extend out of the squishy bun, almost begging you to pull off a hot, salty bite with your fingers. Get the classic HiBoy ($5.30), and don’t skip the onion rings ($3.69). 24 W. U.S. Highway 24, Independence. 816-252-4050
Johnny’s Donuts and Hamburgers (1961)
Given the two things Johnny’s specializes in, it’s not a stretch to imagine a donut-cheeseburger mash-up. Order the “donutburger” ($4.59 with cheese) here and you’ll get a big grin of approval from the cashier. 4424 Prospect Ave., KCMO. 816-921-5012
Mugs-Up Root Beer (1956)
Served on a soft bun with mustard and pickles, Mugs-Up’s loose-meat “whiz burgers” it eats more like a sloppy Joe than a burger — something you can play up if you get a chili whizburger ($2.95), which we highly recommend. 700 E. 23rd St. S., Independence. 816-254-7040
Paul’s Drive-In KCK (1961) Update: Paul’s has closed
Enjoy a thin smash-patty cheeseburger ($3.60) at Paul’s Drive-In in Kansas City, Kansas with one of the super-rich milkshakes and malts that are hand-mixed to order the old-fashioned way. (Note: There are two Paul’s Drive-Ins, but they are not affiliated with each other.) 1008 Osage Ave., KCK.
Paul’s Drive-In KCMO (1962)
Get the Big Boy burger ($3.89) at Paul’s Drive-In in South Kansas City, served with shredded lettuce, tomato, raw onions and a mayo-ketchup sauce. Despite its moniker, it’s just the right size for a meal that won’t put you over the edge. 10424 Blue Ridge Blvd., KCMO. 816-761-5700
Town Topic (1937)
At one point, Kansas City had seven Town Topics to its name. Now, there are just
three two. The one on Broadway is open 24 hours, and on weekend nights, it’s a hotbed of activity as people line up for double cheeseburgers ($5.25) and slices of butterscotch pie. 2021 Broadway Blvd., KCMO. 816-842-2298
Winstead’s 24-hour drive-through has certainly gotten me through a lot of late-night post-bar times, and for that reason, the double steakburger with everything (pickles, onions, mustard and ketchup) will always have a special place in my heart. 101 Cleaver II Blvd., KCMO. 816-753-2244.